For years, it was the way almost all Americans wrote. Whether in a letter, or a business proposal, or a personal diary, Spencerian and written communication were one and the same. Spencerian writing was so far-reaching and pervasive in American culture, it even made its way into the iconic logos of Ford and Coca Cola. How did Spencerian handwriting become one of the most recognizable and important parts of American life?
A Spencerian Story
It was the year 1800, and America was now several decades into its newly declared existence as an independent nation. While the American spirit was still fresh and fueling change, something significant had still been pervading its culture: the way people wrote.
At the time, the standard for all written correspondence in America was English script. A strictly uniform and consistent order of writing, it required stiff muscular and emotional restriction, allowing for almost no individual expression, and very little room for either artistic or personal style. It almost seemed symptomatic of the grievances Americans felt before declaring their independence from Great Britain.
The Birth of Spencerian Writing
Enter a man named Platt Rogers Spencer. Born in a small village 70 miles north of New York City, his hometown of East Fishkill at the time had still not been officially established. Today it’s just a little under a 30 minute drive from Poughkeepsie, its closest city neighbor.
Born at the turn of the century, on November 7th, 1800, Spencer’s time of birth almost seemed symbolic of the changes soon to take over America.
Growing up, even as a young boy, Spencer was fascinated with the dense forests and foliage that surrounded his tiny, sparsely populated village. At the same time, he had been developing another seemingly unrelated passion: a strong fondness for writing.
Paper was difficult to obtain at the time, so Spencer looked for anything he could write on, and wrote fervently on what he found. Sand, ice, snow, the fly-leaves of his mother’s Bible, bark from the surrounding trees, he even talked his way into getting permission from a local cobbler to write on the leather in his shop.
By the time he was just 15, Spencer taught his first writing class, and for years after, he immersed himself in the study of penmanship. His early fascination with nature continued to accompany him in his journey, and slowly he began developing a style of handwriting inspired by his love of nature.
The man himself, Mister Platt Rogers Spencer
Spencer narrowed down his admiration for nature to four distinct aspects - a sense of movement, curvature, variety, and contrast. It was because of these features, he decided, that nature appeared to be beautiful wherever you looked. Spencer strongly believed that God created nature, and that God created people. Logically, he thought, if nature could express itself so beautifully with these four facets, why couldn’t people, another one of God’s creations, express itself in the same way?
He began developing the bones of what would soon become his namesake writing system, and his most memorable accomplishment. Born from the beauty of nature and the human desire for self-expression, the system developed by Spencer was nothing short of revolutionary.
A Writing Revolution
For the first time, instead of being confined to the rigid restrictions of English script - with no variance in letters and size, and no personal expression - writers were now free to explore on paper with a writing system built on motion and contrasting features. Words on paper were no longer just words: they were artistic impressions. Writing was beautiful to look at, and engaging for both the writer and the reader. Writers had a personal style they could impart in their words, that made the writing process all the more attractive. The heavy use of curves allowed ample opportunity for flourishing, opening the door to a whole other world of artistic penmanship. Writers were much more physically at ease, as it required vastly less muscle stiffness compared to English script. But perhaps the greatest accomplishment of Spencerian writing was its ability to make emotion come to life on paper.
It’s all part of what has made Spencerian so enduring, even 150 years later.
Michael Sull is not only an internationally recognized Master Penman, but he also considered the foremost expert on Spencerian script in America. He tells us at The Paper Seahorse why Spencerian was and still is one of the most powerful forms of communication. To him, it all comes down to the roots of human nature.
“People”, he says, “can shout when they're excited. People can jump up and down. They can speak in quiet whispers. Their eyes and their facial expression can show intent, and a certain amount of conviction.”
“Spencer felt that if a person was able to have an alphabet that was based on those characters of nature, then you should be able to create visible language on paper that has so much personal expression, whoever reads it could understand how you felt, what you meant, how much you wanted to emphasize certain points and certain aspects of the language that you write on paper.”
Spencerian script caught like wildfire in America. It resonated with so many Americans because it was not just a rejection of English tradition, but an embrace of the ideals of their nation. Spencerian allowed for expression, for freedom, for individual thought, and it took off almost immediately.
A classic example of Spencerian flourishing, pulling inspiration from nature in true Spencerian fashion
For close to a century, the fever surrounding Spencerian script persisted in every written aspect of American culture. If you were writing a letter, you wrote in Spencerian. If you were corresponding in business, you wrote in Spencerian. Even logos pulled inspiration from the Spencerian system, and some you can recognize today, including the Coca Cola logo, and the logo for Ford cars.
Going Through Changes
One thing that has held true, whether in the 19th century, or today, is that change is always inevitable. The onslaught of advancing technologies took its toll in America, and Spencerian was no exception. By the time typewriters had succeeded handwriting as the de facto form of written communication, in the early to mid 1900s, Spencerian had become obsolete in the mainstream.
We don’t know what new technologies will pave the path forward in the coming years, but there’s one thing we do know: We as human beings will always need to express ourselves. We feel emotion, and have ideas, and want to tell others how we feel about them, and how we feel about ourselves. It’s the reason Spencerian script has still endured through all these years, and continues to fascinate people to this day - because there’s no other form of written communication that speaks to the inner creative spirit quite like Spencerian script.
“When you speak, you can't see the words, and as soon as you stop speaking, no one can hear what you said,” says Michael Sull, paying his tribute to the importance of Spencerian script. “No one can think about what you said because it's pretty much gone. It's disappeared. No one can see body language that isn’t animated anymore, so you kind of lose that.”
“But handwriting, handwriting is forever. It's visible language and all the expression that goes into it. All of the communication and information that goes into it exists forever.”
Make your mark with Master Penman Michael Sull this fall! Mister Sull, expert on Spencerian, cursive, calligraphy, and artistic penmanship, is teaching a workshop series in a rare visit to the Southeast US. From November 30th to December 2nd, Michael Sull will be in the Tampa Bay FL area to teach American Cursive Handwriting, Artistic Signatures, Decorative Flourishing, and Spencerian Script. You can attend one workshop, or up all four workshops. We encourage those interested to sign up soon, as class sizes are limited! Each offers a singular opportunity to work in an intimate setting with one of the world’s last living master penmen.
Visit www.paperseahorse.com/spencerian for more information. We hope to see you at the end of November!